Book Explores the Downside Of Latin America's Biofuels Boom
A new book edited by Robert Bailis explores how the growth of the biofuels sector affects social, economic and environmental systems across Latin America and the Caribbean, and how different nations are addressing the challenges.
Note: Yale School of the Environment (YSE) was formerly known as the Yale School of Forestry & Environmental Studies (F&ES). News articles and events posted prior to July 1, 2020 refer to the School's name at that time.
The global surge in biofuel production in recent years has provided a real and growing alternative to fossil fuels in markets worldwide, but has introduced a host of complex sustainability challenges in the regions where the crops are grown.
In addition to concerns about environmental degradation and forest loss, the rise of the biofuels sector has triggered important questions about food security, pollution, abuse of land and human rights.
In a new book, co-edited by Robert Bailis of the Yale School of Forestry & Environmental Studies, several experts explore how this growing sector affects social, economic and environmental systems across Latin America and the Caribbean, and how different nations are addressing the challenges.
According to the book, biofuels produced in Latin America and the Caribbean now account for 27 percent of global biofuel production (and more than 50 percent if the U.S. is excluded), with regional output doubling from 2001 to 2011.
While Brazil and Argentina remain the region’s reigning biofuel powers, other nations — including Colombia, Peru, Guatemala, Mexico and several Caribbean Island states — have become increasingly active in the sector over the last decade.
The economic and policy goals have varied from place to place. Brazil, a major exporter of ethanol, became the first biofuel power three decades ago out of concerns about energy security. For Argentina, which has become a world leader in biodiesel production, the primary motivation was trade potential with other nations. Other countries simply wanted to develop domestic sectors to meet their own energy needs.
But in every case, Bailis says, there have emerged profound challenges in developing these resources in a sustainable way.
“What you have are a series of national-level systems trying to meet a range of energy, environmental and social objectives,” he said. “And it’s not clear that they can all be met simultaneously — or even if any of them can be met at all.”
Regional pushback provoked by these tensions has yielded a range of sustainability governance attempts at national and international levels, from strict certification requirements to voluntary programs, Bailis says. Some have been implemented by the producing countries, and others by governments importing the products.
The results have been mixed. For example, the recognition of environmental standards by the EU, a major market for biofuels, has granted legitimacy to numerous certification standards, Solomon said. However, he added, “there are far too many alternative biofuel sustainability certification programs, most with third-party verification requirements, [which] has led to a lot of confusion about what is really being achieved and is ultimately achievable.”
And in Brazil, even well-meaning policies that incentivized biofuel crop production in poorer regions have been hampered by the fact that the smaller-scale operations in those areas simply couldn’t compete because of weak infrastructure with little capacity to grow novel crops at required volumes, Bailis said.
While additional research is needed to assess the effectiveness of sustainability governance across a complex range of political and geographic systems, one major achievement of the book was to shift the debate from the conceptual realm to the ground level, said Christine Moser, a doctoral student at Leuphana University in Germany who co-authored a chapter on governance with Bailis.
“Many aspects around biofuels, such as sustainability standards and certification, are often discussed conceptually,” said Moser, who was a visiting researcher at F&ES last fall. “What I like about this edition is that we were able to draw together an interesting mix of conceptual and empirical work — in some case outlining the gap between academic and political discourse and issues that actually matter on the ground.”